When an Austrian man was arrested last April for imprisoning and raping his daughter for 24 years in a windowless dungeon he built beneath his home, commentators called me repeatedly, based on my 30 years prosecuting sex offenders in Manhattan, with the same question: Could Josef Fritzl, who fathered (and grandfathered) six surviving babies in that cellar, including three raised in the family home directly above their captive siblings, happen here?
Most wanted assurances that such a monstrous crime wasn’t possible in our own cellars and backyards. I couldn’t mollify them. I had known far too many of these child molesters—their dark minds, the recidivist nature of their acts, their ability to exploit the most vulnerable of our children—to believe that the same dynamic wasn’t happening at home.
Garrido met his wife, now his co-defendant, while serving time for rape and kidnapping (what red flag didn’t go off in her head?).
Last week, after 18 years of hiding his victims in plain sight of neighbors and parole officers—in a series of soundproofed sheds and ragged tents in his backyard, visible through chain link fences—our Fritzl, a pervert named Phillip Garrido, was arrested in a small California town. The stranger he had kidnapped when she was an 11-year-old (the exact age when Herr Fritzl admitted his incestuous relationship with his daughter began) is now a 29-year-old woman, forced into captivity and raped repeatedly, giving birth to two daughters fathered by Garrido, who raised them with his wife.
What does our society and law enforcement not get about child molesters? They are considered the most likely of all felons to repeat their crimes— a predator is a predator is a predator, even after he’s spent time in prison—and no known therapy has cured this kind of sickness.
Both Phillip Garrido and Josef Fritzl were previously convicted of separate rapes, and served jail sentences. Both were married to women who knew about their sexual deviancy—Fritzl’s conviction occurred in the early years of his marriage, and Garrido met his wife, now his co-defendant, while serving time for rape and kidnapping (what red flag didn’t go off in her head?). The behavior of these two women is unfathomable. Fritzl’s homemade prison was in their very basement. He disappeared for hours, perhaps nights at a time, and yet I’m to believe that Mrs. Fritzl wasn’t curious about his downstairs dalliances? On three occasions, Fritzl “found” babies on the doorstep, “convincing” his wife that their runaway daughter, Elizabeth, had made her way home to drop them off to be raised by her parents. Yet she never sought out authorities, to urge them to find the missing daughter? Her complicity in these horrors is mind-boggling.
In the case of Nancy Garrido, she had to be well aware of the details of his prior conviction, which included handcuffing and binding a woman—her head to her knees—as he took her to a storage warehouse, where he beat and raped her. She became the co-jailer of Jaycee Dugard, the 11-year-old whose mind and body were abused, and whose young spirit was broken as she was subjected to Phillip Garrido’s degrading sexual assaults. There was even a period of time, when Jaycee was 13, that Garrido himself was sent back to prison for four months, and Nancy Garrido allegedly stepped in as sole captor. Imagine the evil fueling that woman’s mind—when she had a clear opportunity to release Jaycee—even if she also suffered abuse at Garrido’s hands.
What were the responsibilities of the people in the communities in which these families lived, and of the agencies that were supposed to be watching both predators? The three children who were born in the dungeon and raised by Josef and his wife went to school and walked the streets of their middle-class neighborhood, with no teachers or police agents questioning how they had appeared and why this convicted rapist had custodial care of them.
Garrido, a federal parolee, was subject to lifetime supervision. But when a neighbor called police to question why she had seen children in his yard, adjacent to her own, the responding officers never even stepped through his door, never thought to examine the nightmare of warren-like huts that housed his three captives, surrounded by mounds of garbage and the detritus of their damaged lives.
There are scores of questions prompted by these cases, none more urgent than whether and how these young women can recover from years of being sexual prisoners, in a world of their own just beyond the basement door or chain link fence. If you didn’t understand the very difficult job of monitoring the hundreds of released sex offenders who are in every community of this country—now often homeless and untraceable, even though most are likely to re-offend— Phillip Garrido has made himself the poster boy for keeping close tabs on every single one of them.
Linda Fairstein, the former chief prosecutor of the New York County District Attorney's Sex Crimes Unit, is an authority on crimes of violence against women and children. She is also the author of the New York Times bestselling crime novel Lethal Legacy and a member of the board of Safe Horizon.